Study reveals extremist groups’ inability to gain foothold in Northwest Montana

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The Southern Poverty Law Center identified seven hate groups in Montana in 2018. The Law Center defines a hate group as a group with “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.” (Note: One hate group, American Freedom Party, is statewide.)

Like many other communities across America, the Flathead Valley has experienced periodic incidents linked to hatred and extremism, but a report and new tracking map from a national legal advocacy organization show most local designated hate groups share one telling trait: they eventually fizzle out.

The consistency in hate groups’ inabilities to gain a foothold in the valley is underpinned on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s most recent “hate map” — a tool released by the nonprofit on an annual basis that identifies groups they designate to be hate groups. As defined by the organization, hate groups are made up of individuals who have “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”

The map shows which groups exist in each state and, more specifically, which groups linger in each local community. It is typically released before March of every year and is compiled by researchers, analysts and others who track the activity of more than 1,000 hate groups across the nation.

When the center released its map for 2018, it provided with it a timeline that allows a look at the greater Flathead Valley last year versus what groups were active in the area nearly two decades ago.

In 2000, the center reported that 599 hate groups existed in the United States, with only four in Montana and none based specifically in the Flathead Valley. But fast forward to 2018 and 1,020 hate groups dot the U.S. map, and of the seven residing in Montana; three of those have found their way to the Flathead Valley. At Montana’s peak hate-group activity in 2010, the state had 13 groups with ideologies ranging from neo-Nazi to white nationalist and just about everything in between, according to the timeline.

“Historically, what we have watched is this migration back and forth from the Flathead and Northwest Montana to Idaho and other areas. The Pacific Northwest especially has always had a regional draw for white supremacy that goes back decades,” said Travis McAdam, a research director for the Montana Human Rights Network.

McAdam said Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho, in particular, have long been sought out as canvases on which to build an Aryan nation — a mission that can be traced back to when Richard Butler, founder of the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, moved from California to Hayden, Idaho.

“But the idea that they are ever going to get enough people to move into these states to create an Aryan homeland is not logistically possible,” McAdam maintained. “That idea has become part of white nationalist myth and lore. It circled around and has just been talked about for so long that it’s becoming this idea that just exists.”

Among many other reckonings, the map shows most of Montana is no stranger to the ebb and flow of white supremacy, but also indicates many hate groups, if not all, have been relatively unsuccessful at gaining traction and spreading their ideologies.

The most recent incident demonstrating this occurred in 2016 in Whitefish.

Andrew Anglin, a high-profile white supremacist and founder of The Daily Stormer website, released the personal information of multiple Jewish leaders in the Whitefish community — a tactic known as doxxing, in which one publishes identifying factors of another online, usually with malicious intent.

In turning their private lives public, he also petitioned his online followers to gather in Whitefish to support Whitefish white supremacist Richard Spencer and his family, whose property in downtown Whitefish became a focal point for the online anti-Semitism. A proposed armed march through the streets of Whitefish never materialized, however, after the city declined to issue a permit for the public event.

Spencer’s alternative-right beliefs flew well under the radar of most Flathead residents for years.

When he began garnering national attention for his ideologies, however, Love Lives Here, a local community organization that aims to bring Flathead Valley residents together to “dismantle discrimination,” urged the Whitefish City Council to pass an ordinance prohibiting hate organizations from doing business or having offices in Whitefish. The council instead passed a resolution “honoring the inherent worth of all people regardless of race, creed, national origin, sex or sexual orientation.”

It was Love Lives Here that also led the effort to divert attention from the Whitefish anti-Semitic online “troll storm” three years ago. Instead of fighting hate with protests, the group aims to create opportunities for gathering together to promote peace.

“When white supremacists create a strong presence, it’s easy to be afraid and I think it’s easy to think that striking back in a similar fashion will solve the problem,” said Cherilyn DeVries with Love Lives Here. “There is a time and a place for everything and gathering people together to show how strong the community is the best approach. That day [of the troll storm], the people who showed up in numbers were in support of the Jewish community, not in support of white supremacy.”

McAdam, DeVries and other local researchers and advocates say that community resilience is key for assuring the groups don’t find a permanent home in the valley.

“Montana sort of has a bad rap of being this place that attracts extremist groups and individuals,” McAdam said. “But the second part of that story doesn’t get told as much.” According to McAdam, mixed among the Flathead’s brushes with extremism are the lesser-told stories of locals rising up to combat hate in different capacities, with the incident of the Daily Stormer troll storm being only the most recent to occur.

That community resistance is one of two primary reasons for failed footholds, according to experts. The second is both an internal and external clash of ideologies between individual hate groups and sometimes their own members and leaders — an occurrence experts say happens frequently and fosters a falling out that cues an eventual departure from the settled area.

One, or both of these reasons, have affected the Flathead Valley’s most notable encounters with extremism, with local residents working to the detriment of what groups have tried to build in the area.

Kim Crowley, former director of ImagineIF Libraries, has been a witness to a falling out among extremists more than once, and found herself unexpectedly acting as an arbitrator for sensibility.

The first occurrence was in the early 2000s.

Environmental activism and economic development had met at a controversial crossroad in Kalispell. Many local residents who worked in the timber and mining industries had lost their jobs, and many blamed environmentalists. Tensions were largely fueled by former right-wing radio host John Stokes, who regularly labeled environmentalists as something to be “annihilated” on air, and would burn a green swastika on Earth Day every year in protest to environmentalism.

Whitefish native and former board member of the Montana Human Rights Network Will Randall earmarks that era as one of the most significant stretches of hate in Flathead County history.

“There is racism in every city and every state in this country and this was a moment that really fertilized the ground for things to grow from in this county,” Randall said. “The rhetoric he [Stokes] used on the radio built a movement and inflamed a lot of people.”

Community members from the two camps would remain polarized for years until eventually locals grew tired of the tension and took it upon themselves to try and remedy the discord themselves.

Hundreds of people gathered to brainstorm peaceful possibilities and among them was Crowley, who along with a handful of others spearheaded mediation efforts by creating the “Principles for Civil Dialogue, Turning Strangers into Neighbors.”

Crowley and about 80 other community members managed to gather environmental and economic leaders together to discuss the importance of tolerance, among other topics. The nine principles, which still grace Flathead County agendas today, can be summed up into two overarching maxims: celebrate diverse opinions and communicate respectfully.

“For a time we were able to come together and talk about things civilly,” Crowley said. “As simple and old school as it may sound, I really believe there is power in being able to just join together and discuss our differences peacefully.”

The document was created in June of 2006.

The principles still hang on a wall in the basement of the Kalispell ImagineIF library where ironically, about five years after the document’s creation, a white nationalist group known as Pioneer Little Europe would debate the existence of the largest genocide in history via a series of anti-holocaust films.

It was the summer of 2011 and Crowley was the director of what was then known as the Flathead County Library System before it was rebranded as ImagineIF. Leaders of the group, who were already known for their ideological grapples with one another, were having what Crowley described as “internal conflicts” at the library one afternoon during a showing of the films. The fight eventually became so heated Crowley felt as though she had to intervene.

“The weirdest moment of my career was when I was standing between two neo-Nazis trying to mediate their arguments,” Crowley said.

Wedged between Pioneer Little Europe figureheads quarreling in the middle of the library and the hundreds of local residents lined up outside the building rallying against them, was Crowley’s ethical battle to assure the library remained a public space for all. Neo-nazis included.

According to Scott Kelley Ernest, a former member of Pioneer Little Europe who was tasked with recruiting new members to the Flathead Valley, the leaders argued constantly, himself included.

“We all had varying levels of moderate versus extreme viewpoints,” Ernest said, who left the movement in early 2016. “They kind of dug their own grave with their fighting. There are still people in the area that are white nationalists, but there is no organized community.”

According to Ernest, while Pioneer Little Europe fell under the umbrella of white supremacy, there was very little the group had in common with other white supremacist groups at the time. “We didn’t associate with those in the Creativity Movement or really any other groups,” Ernest said.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Creativity Movement, also known as the Church of the Creator, is a self-styled religious group that “promotes what it sees as the inherent superiority and ‘creativity’ of the white race.” At first blush, the two movements seem similar, but subtle, yet fundamental differences in ideologies, actually made them quite opposite.

“Multiple white supremacist beliefs are common throughout the area [Flathead], but you won’t find similar beliefs spread throughout multiple groups,” Ernest said. “It’s like that in most places.”

As the old adage suggests, history tends to repeat itself.

The most recent hate map from the Southern Poverty Law Center shows there are currently seven active hate groups in Montana. Four of those exist in Northwest Montana, stretching from Whitefish to Dayton. One of those, the American Freedom Party, exists statewide.

The Daily Inter Lake attempted to reach the Last Chance Patriots in Dayton, those remaining from Pioneer Little Europe in Kalispell and the National Policy Institute and Radix Journal in Whitefish. Of the four, only Last Chance Patriots replied.

Like many that have made the Law Center’s hate group list, leaders of the Last Chance Patriots denied hateful activity and beliefs. One of the group’s leaders, Ed Kugler, described the decision to add the group to the list as “ludicrous” and “duplicitous.”

The group was formerly a chapter of ACT for America, which is one of the most prominent anti-Muslim movements in the U.S., with members on just about every corner of the map. According to Kugler, Last Chance Patriots separated from ACT in 2017.

“ACT was totally focused on the Islamization of America and we agree that’s a big problem, but the leaders of that group did not want us focusing on anything other than that,” Kugler said. “That’s what led us to start Last Chance Patriots. We wanted to focus on what we thought were the jugular issues and how it impacts Montana specifically.”

According to Last Chance Patriot’s website, the group focuses on educating the public on a few main topics they consider prominent issues including immigration and sanctuary cities, “foreign influence” on Montana tribes and the interfaith movement. Kugler maintained America is at a “pivotal point” in that certain values of those who tip the left side of the political scale may be “here to stay.”

According to Kugler, some members who came over from ACT to Last Chance Patriots have made the decision to leave because of differences in the groups, among other reasons. Kugler said the group’s mailing list is currently at about 1,100.

When asked if they believe the Flathead Valley could see more extremist incidents in the future, experts unanimously responded with long pauses, followed by answers expressing uncertainty, but also hope.

Both Randall and McAdam said they didn’t think the area “was immune” to such events.

“We know there are people in different areas that are literally trying to incite a race war. So I would love to say ‘oh no, it will never happen here,’ but I think lots of people never would have thought they’d see a neo-Nazi website creator [propose to] march armed through their town, either,” DeVries said. “But even though so many groups have attempted to gain a real foothold here and expand the white supremacist agenda, it hasn’t been possible yet and I find that very encouraging.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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